Obama, Islam, and History
“‘Thomas Jefferson’s opponents tried to stir things up by suggesting he was a Muslim. So I was not the first,’ Obama said, sparking laughter. ‘No, it’s true. Look it up. I’m in good company.’” — From USA Today on Barack Obama’s visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore, February 3, 2016
Barack Obama paid a visit — his first — to an American mosque yesterday. He did so in the same feelgood spirit with which he held his first “Annual Iftar Dinner” in 2010. That dinner prompted a post which, considerably modified and enlarged, is reprinted below.
“The first Muslim ambassador to the United States, from Tunisia, was hosted by President Jefferson, who arranged a sunset dinner for his guest because it was Ramadan — making it the first known iftar at the White House, more than 200 years ago.” — Barack Obama, speaking on August 14, 2010, at the “Annual Iftar Dinner” at the White House
Really? Is that what happened? Was there a “first known Iftar at the White House” given by none other than President Thomas Jefferson for the “first Muslim ambassador to the United States”? That’s what Barack Obama and his dutiful speechwriters told the Muslims in attendance at what was billed as the “Annual Iftar Dinner,” knowing full well that the remarks would be published for all Americans to see. Apparently Obama, and those who helped write this speech for him, and others still who vetted it, found nothing wrong with attempting, as part of the administration’s policy of both trying to win Muslim hearts and Muslim mind and to convince Americans that Islam has always been part of America’s history, to misrepresent that history. For the dinner Jefferson gave was not intended to be an Iftar dinner, and his guest that evening was not “the first Muslim ambassador…. from Tunisia,” but in using such words, Obama was engaged in a little nunc pro tunc backdating, so that the Iftar dinner that he gave in 2010 could be presented as part of a supposed tradition of such presidential Iftar dinners, going all the way back to the time of Jefferson.
But before explaining what that “first Iftar dinner” really was, let’s go back to an earlier but even more egregious example of Obama’s rewriting: the speech he delivered in Cairo on June 4, 2009. In that speech, he described Islam and America sharing basic principles:
“I’ve come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles — principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”
And then for his Muslim guests he segued into a flattering lesson in History. First he described Western Civ. which, he said, owed so much of its development to Islam:
“As a student of history, I also know civilization’s debt to Islam. It was Islam — at places like Al-Azhar — that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment. It was innovation in Muslim communities — (applause) — it was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing; our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed. Islamic culture has given us majestic arches and soaring spires; timeless poetry and cherished music; elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation. And throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality.” (Applause.)
And Islam played — according to Obama — a significant role in American history, too:
I also know that Islam has always been a part of America’s story. The first nation to recognize my country was Morocco. In signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, our second President, John Adams, wrote, “The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.” And since our founding, American Muslims have enriched the United States. They have fought in our wars, they have served in our government, they have stood for civil rights, they have started businesses, they have taught at our universities, they’ve excelled in our sports arenas, they’ve won Nobel Prizes, built our tallest building, and lit the Olympic Torch. And when the first Muslim American was recently elected to Congress, he took the oath to defend our Constitution using the same Holy Koran that one of our Founding Fathers — Thomas Jefferson — kept in his personal library. (Applause.)
We could go through those paragraphs accompanied by such keen students of history as Gibbon, John Quincy Adams,, Jacob Burckhardt, and Winston Churchill, all of whom had occasion to study and comment upon Islam, their remarks rebutting proleptically Obama’s vaporings with their much more informed and sober take on the faith — but that is for another occasion. We can note, however, that when Obama in his Cairo speech talks about “the light of learning” being held aloft at places like Al-Azhar, he misstates: some Greek texts were translated into Arabic and thereby “kept alive” instead of being lost to history, but the translators were mostly Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews, not Muslims, and the work of translation went on not at Al-Azhar but at the courts of Cordoba and Baghdad. The word “algebra” is certainly Arab, but algebra itself was a product of Sanskrit mathematicians. The printing press was not a Musim invention and its use was accepted in the Muslim East only long after it had been in use in Western Christendom. Indeed, in Islam itself the very notion of innovation, or “bida,” is frowned upon, and not only, as some Muslim apologists have claimed, in theological matters. And so on.
“I also know that Islam has always been a part of America’s story. The first nation to recognize my country was Morocco.I also know that Islam has always been a part of America’s story. The first nation to recognize my country was Morocco.”
The picture Obama paints by implication, of Muslims being deeply involved in the grand sweep of American history practically from the time of the Framers (at least he didn’t make the mistake of the State Department flunkie who claimed Muslims accompanied Columbus on his voyages) is simply false. The first mosque in North America was a one-room affair in 1929; the second mosque was not built until 1934. The first Muslim to be elected to Congress was Keith Ellison, less than a decade ago. The Muslim appearance in America is very late. As for Morocco being the first country to recognize the United States in a treaty, Morocco also soon violated that very treaty and became the first country to go to war with the young Republic. That is something Obama’s advisers may not have told him.
When Obama quotes that single phrase from John Adams, made at the signing of the Treaty of Tripoli, a treaty designed to free American ships and seaman from the ever-present threat from the marauding Muslim corsairs in the Mediterranean that attacked Christian shipping at will (and when America became independent, it could no longer count on the Royal Navy to protect its ships) he wants us to think that our second president was approving of Islam. But that is to misinterpret his statement, clearly meant to be taken to have this meaning: we in the United States, have a priori nothing against Islam. Rhetoric designed to diplomatically please. But based on his subsequent experiences with the North African Muslims, including his experiences with them after various treaties were made and then broken, Adams came to a different and negative view of Islam, a view that was shared by all those Americans who, whether diplomats or seized seamen, had any direct dealings with Muslims. America’s first encounter with Muslims was that with the Barbary Pirates, from Morocco to Algiers to Tunis to Tripoli, and their behavior rendered Adams’s initial “the United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims” null and void. And it was not John Adams himself, but his son John Quincy Adams (our most learned President), who studied Islam in depth, and it was he to whom Obama ought to have turned to find out more about Islam. For he would have found, among other piercing and accurate remarks by J. Q. Adams, the following:
The precept of the koran is, perpetual war against all who deny, that Mahomet is the prophet of God. The vanquished may purchase their lives, by the payment of tribute; the victorious may be appeased by a false and delusive promise of peace; and the faithful follower of the prophet, may submit to the imperious necessities of defeat: but the command to propagate the Moslem creed by the sword is always obligatory, when it can be made effective. The commands of the prophet may be performed alike, by fraud, or by force.
Isn’t it amazing that not a single American official — and not just Obama — has ever alluded to the study of Islam that one of our most illustrious presidents produced?
Again, Obama, with a jumble of Jefferson, Ellison, and Holy Koran:
“And when the first Muslim American was recently elected to Congress, he took the oath to defend our Constitution using the same Holy Koran that one of our Founding Fathers — Thomas Jefferson — kept in his personal library.”
When Obama notes that Thomas Jefferson had a copy of the Qur’an in his “personal” library, he is subtly implying that Jefferson approved of its contents. Keith Ellison did much the same when he ostentatiously used that very copy of the Qur’an for his own swearing-in as the first Muslim Congressman. But Jefferson, a curious and cultivated man, with a large library, had a copy of the Qur’an for the same reason you or I might possess a copy, that is simply to find out what was in it. And we might note in passing that it was not the “Holy Koran” that Jefferson possessed and Ellison borrowed, but an English translation by George Sales of the “Koran.” According to Muslims, the epithet “Holy” can only be attached to a Koran written and read in the original Arabic. White House, for the next time, take note.
There is not a single American statesman or traveler or diplomat in the days of the early Republic who had a good word for Islam once he had studied it, or had had dealings with Muslims or had travelled to their countries. Look high, look low, consult whatever records you want in the National Archives or the Library of Congress, and you will not find any such testimony. And the very idea that an American President would someday praise Islam to the skies in Obama’s fulsome manner would have astounded them all.
”And throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance”
Also sprach Obama. But Islam is based on an uncompromising division of humanity into Muslims and Non-Muslims, Believers and Unbelievers, and Unbelievers, at best, can be allowed to live in a Muslim polity — be “tolerated” — only if they accept a position of permanent and humiliating inferiority. It would be fascinating if Obama could name even one example of Islam demonstrating through words and deeds “the possibilities of religious tolerance.”
But let’s return to Obama’s assertion about Jefferson’s “Iftar Dinner,” or rather, to that dinner that Barack Obama would have us all believe was the first “Iftar Dinner” at the White House, way back in 1805.
Here is the background to that meal in 1805 which not Jefferson, but Obama, calls an “Iftar Dinner”:
“In the Mediterranean, American ships, now deprived of the protection formerly offered by the Royal Navy, suffered constant depredations by Muslim corsairs, who were not so much pirates acting alone but were officially encouraged to prey on Christian shipping, and at times even recorded the areas of the Mediterranean where they planned to go in search of Christian prey. Under Jefferson, America took a more aggressive line:’
“Soon after the Revolutionary War and the consequent loss of the British navy’s protection, American merchant vessels had become prey for Barbary corsairs. Jefferson was outraged by the demands of ransom for civilians captured from American vessels and the Barbary states’ expectation of annual tribute.
“The crisis with Tunis erupted when the USS Constitution captured Tunisian vessels attempting to run the American blockade of Tripoli. The bey of Tunis threatened war and sent Mellimelli [Sidi Soliman Mellimelli] to the United States to negotiate full restitution for the captured vessels and to barter for tribute.”
Mellimelli was not, pace Obama, “the first Muslim ambassador to the United States”—there was no official exchange of ambassadors – but a temporary envoy with a single limited task: to get an agreement that would set free the Tunisian vessels and come to an agreement about future payment – if any — of tribute by, or to Tripoli. At the end of six months that envoy was to return home.
The Muslim envoy made some unexpected personal demands in Washington:
“Jefferson balked at paying tribute but accepted the expectation that the host government would cover all expenses for such an emissary. He arranged for Mellimelli and his 11 attendants to be housed at a Washington hotel, and rationalized that the sale of the four horses and other fine gifts sent by the bey of Tunis would cover costs. Mellimelli’s request for “concubines” as a part of his accommodations was left to Secretary of State James Madison. Jefferson assured one senator that obtaining peace with the Barbary powers was important enough to “pass unnoticed the irregular conduct of their ministers.”
Some readers will no doubt be reminded by this request for “concubines” of how the State Department has supplied female companions to much more recent Arab visitors, including the late King Hussein of Jordan.
Mellimelli proved to be the exotic cynosure of all eyes, with his American hosts not really understanding some of his reactions, as his “surprise” at the “social freedom women enjoyed in America” and his belief that only Moses, Jesus Christ, and Mohammed were acceptable “prophets” to follow, for they lacked the understanding of Islam that would have explained such reactions:
“Despite whispers regarding his conduct, Mellimelli received invitations to numerous dinners and balls, and according to one Washington hostess was “the lion of the season.” At the president’s New Year’s Day levee the Tunisian envoy provided “its most brilliant and splendid spectacle,” and added to his melodramatic image at a later dinner party hosted by the secretary of state. Upon learning that the Madisons were unhappy at being childless, Mellimelli flung his “magical” cloak around Dolley Madison and murmured an incantation that promised she would bear a male child. His conjuring, however, did not work.
Differences in culture and customs stirred interest on both sides. Mellimelli’s generous use of scented rose oil was noted by many of those who met him, and guards had to be posted outside his lodgings to turn away the curious. For his part, the Tunisian was surprised at the social freedom women enjoyed in America and was especially intrigued by several delegations of Native Americans from the western territories then visiting Washington. Mellimelli inquired which prophet the Indians followed: Moses, Jesus Christ or Mohammed. When he was told none of them, that they worshiped “the Great Spirit” alone, he was reported to have pronounced them “vile hereticks.”
So that’s it. Sidi Soliman Mellimelli installed himself for six months at a Washington hotel, for which the American government apparently picked up the tab including, very likely, that for the requested “concubines.” He cut a dashing figure:
“The curious were not to be disappointed by the appearance of the first Muslim envoy to the United States – a large figure with a full dark beard dressed in robes of richly embroidered fabrics and a turban of fine white muslin.”
“Over the next six months, this exotic representative from a distant and unfamiliar culture would add spice to the Washington social season but also test the diplomatic abilities of President Jefferson.”
During the time Mellimelli was here, Ramadan occurred. And as it happens, during that Ramadan observed by Mellimelli, President Jefferson invited Sidi Soliman Mellimelli for dinner at the White House. The dinner was not meant to be an “Iftar dinner” but just a dinner, albeit at the White House; it was originally set for three thirty in the afternoon (our founding fathers dined early in the pre-Edison days of their existence). Mellimelli said he could not come at that appointed hour of three thirty p.m. but only after sundown.
Jefferson, a courteous man, simply moved the dinner forward by a few hours. He didn’t change the menu, he didn’t change anything else, he did not see himself as offering an “Iftar Dinner” and there are no records to hint that he did. Barack Obama, 200 years later, is trying to rewrite American history, with some nunc-pro-tunc backdating, in order to flatter or please his Muslim guests. But he is misrepresenting American history to Americans, including schoolchildren who are now being subject to all kinds of Islamic propaganda, in newly-mandated textbooks, that so favorably depict Islam, and present it as so integral a part of American life.
Now there is a kind of coda to this dismal tale, and it is provided by the New York Times, which likes to put on airs and think of itself as “the newspaper of record,” whatever that means. The Times carried a front-page story on August 14, 2010, written by one Sheryl Gay Stolberg, and no doubt gone over by many vigilant editors. This story contains a predictably glowing account of Barack Obama’s remarks a few days before at the “Annual Iftar Dinner.” Here is the paragraph that caught my eye:
“In hosting the iftar, Mr. Obama was following a White House tradition that, while sporadic, dates to Thomas Jefferson, who held a sunset dinner for the first Muslim ambassador to the United States. President George W. Bush hosted iftars annually.”
Question for Sheryl Gay Stolberg, and for her editors at The New York Times: You report that there is a “White House tradition that, while sporadic, dates to Thomas Jefferson.” I claim that you are wrong. I claim that there is no White House Tradition of Iftar Dinners. I claim that Thomas Jefferson, in moving forward by a few hours a dinner that changed in no other respect, for Sidi Soliman Mellimelli, did not think he thi not providing what he thought of as an “Iftar Dinner” but simply a dinner, at a time his guest requested. And to describe as a “White House tradition” wou first of the “Annual Iftar Dinners” that, the New York Times tells us, has since Jefferson’s non-existent “Iftar Dinner,” have been observed “sporadically.”
When, then, was the next in this long, but “sporadic” series of iftar dinners? I can find no record of any, for roughly the next two hundred years, until we come to the fall of the year 2001, that is, just after the deadliest attack on American civilians ever recorded, an attack carried out by a novemdectet of Muslims acting according to their orthodox understanding of the very same texts — Qur’an, Hadith, Sira — that all Muslims rely on for authority. It was President George Bush who decided that, to win Muslim “trust” or to end Muslim “mistrust” — I forget which — so that we could, non-Muslim and Muslim, collaborate on defeating those “violent extremists” who had “hijacked a great religion,” started this sporadic ball unsporadically rolling. And he did what he set out to, by golly, he did. He hosted an Iftar Dinner with all the fixins. It was held just the month after the attacks on the World Trade Center, on the Pentagon, on a plane’s doomed pilots and passengers over a field in Pennsylvania.
And thus it is that, ever since 2001, we have had iftar dinner after iftar dinner. But it was not Jefferson or any other of our learned Presidents, who started this “tradition” that has been observed only “sporadically” — unless we were to count as an “iftar dinner” what was merely seen, by Jefferson, as a dinner given at a time convenient for his exotic guest.
George Bush, that profound student of history and of ideas, kept telling us, in those first few months after 9/11/2001, that as far as he was concerned, by gum, Islam was a religion of “peace and tolerance.” He and Obama agree on that. And just to prove it, by golly, he’d put on an Iftar Dinner with all the fixins. And that’s just what he did. And that’s how the long “tradition” that Sheryl Gay Stolberg, and her many vetting editors at the newspaper of comical record, The New York Times, referred to, began. It’s all of nine years old, having survived and thrived through the differently-disastrous presidencies of Bush and of Obama.
I have a request for The New York Times. It’s a most modest one. All I ask is that the editors of The New York Times apologize for that paper’s misapplication of the adjective “sporadic” in the front-page story by Sheryl Stolberg on the “Annual Iftar” dinner.
Put up, or shut up, dear newspaper of record. Tell us when that “tradition” of “Iftar Dinners” truly began. Cite those Presidents who held dinners that they considered to be “Iftar Dinners.” Give us chapter, give us verse. And if, as I believe, that hollow and recent and transparently determined-to-win-Muslim-hearts-and-minds “tradition” began only in 2001, then tell us. And since your story was on the front page, do what the lawyers do when they have to make legal announcements, and put your retraction, eat your humble pie, right on the same front page.
A failure to do so will be further, and for some the final confirmation, of the sorry record of The New York Times in its coverage of Islam. Most readers with some sense of what Islam is all about are now ready to take any coverage of the matter in The New York Times with a grain – a Pinch – of salt.
Clio, Muse of History, is a stern mistress. Subscribers to stories that live and die between editions may forget or forgive, but Mnemosyne does neither. If I were the “newspaper of record,” I’d want to propitiate not the gods, but the most vigilant and meticulous of muses. If I were Pinch Sulzberger, I’d be mortally embarrassed, and determined to make amends. But then, I have standards.
Which brings us up to today, and the glad news that. President Obama will be paying his first visit to a mosque on American soil. There will be some sort of feelgood exchange, and perhaps even a reference to the “long tradition” of Iftar dinners, or to the great contribution Muslims have made since the very beginning to our American story. No one will have the bad taste to bring up what is actually to be found in the Qur’an and Hadith. Someone may quote 2:256 and 5:32 (but not 5:33). John Quincy Adams will be passed over in silence. I can’t wait. Can you?
First published in Jihad Watch.